- Ellen Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop: Hull House and Philosophy
Much work has recently been done on Jane Addams, her writings, and the general atmosphere and thought associated with Hull House and other settlement places in American cities.1 But although we might think of Addams and her work as the center of the Hull House effort, many other women (and a few men) were involved in the efforts, and the strengths that they brought to bear on the activities in Chicago in the early part of the twentieth century need to be delineated and, to some extent, given pride of place. Two women whose work was applauded by Addams at the time, but whose thought remains somewhat under investigated are Ellen Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop. Indeed, Addams wrote a book about her partnership with the latter, and that particular piece is often cited in general commentary about her writings.2
The women involved in the Hull House community often trod a dangerous and individualistic path, with few to note their achievements, and with a growing chorus of derogatory remarks. Living alone or sometimes with other women, they chose an adult role that was completely at variance with most of the roles available to females at that time, and they were also careful, in many instances, to write about what they were doing, to give their efforts voice. As some have argued more recently, we can see at least some strands of what later became known as gender feminism in their work, and there is no question that many of them believed that women had special gifts that they could bring to society as a whole. In addition to their general tasks of care, the women of Hull House were among the first to explicitly articulate concern for persons of color and other groups. Their work deserves to be foregrounded. [End Page 1]
Addams was careful to acknowledge others, and one aspect of her writings that has probably not received enough scrutiny is that she was willing to give credit where credit was due—as noted, she has an entire book, My Friend, Julia Lathrop, devoted to that particular individual, and she mentions other women workers at key points in her various texts. We need to inquire into what it was, precisely, that so many of those committed brought to Hull House. Various strands of argument make it easy to see that the Hull House hands-on nurturing for individuals (underscored by Hamington, and involving birth and death, illness and health) pushed the workers at the settlement to be exponents of what we can deem to be a politically-oriented pragmatist feminism.
In their edited volume, On Art, Labor and Religion, Deegan and Wahl have created a compendium of some of the most valuable work by Starr, and they have also exercised editorial discretion in writing extended commentary. From the outset, part of their task is to make it clear to the reader that there were at least two women centrally involved in the creation of Hull House: Addams and Starr.3 They write:
Chicago was tumultuous and exciting in 1889: Immigration, industrialization, urbanization and politics created a vortex of change. This lively chaos called out for reform . . . and two women, Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams, responded to this challenge.4
Starr was a committed socialist, and in addition to forwarding all of the views that we have come to associate with that time and place, she also believed in the notion of redistribution. What is most remarkable about her beliefs is that—in a strikingly original way—Starr was committed to what we might call a redistribution of the aesthetic. In other words, Starr saw it as part of her task to try to bring beauty to those who might not otherwise encounter it on a regular basis.5 As we will see, there is no question that this is related to Deweyan lines of thought.
Eleanor Stebner, in her important The Women of Hull House, notes that Starr was sometimes a difficult personality for many of her co-workers, but that she left a lasting impression on the area, and one that was...